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On a cold winter night, on a transition bound for nowhere

31 May 2023 | OP ED Watch

So how’s the “Energy Transition” going? Apart from the bit where it’s freezing seniors to death, but then as Lenin apparently said, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. According to enthusiasts it’s going great; Reuters “Sustainable Switch” hailed a “race for renewables” late last year while the Atlantic’s “Weekly Planet” gushed “Cobalt is at the forefront of the clean-energy revolution.” But the real question isn’t how this thing is going, it’s whether there’s any such thing to go or not. Because in country after country, supposedly simple measures to transition are proving difficult, fossil fuels are continuing to be the mainstay, and power systems are struggling anyway.

Firms make breezy promises like the Mountain Equipment Coop’s email saying “MEC is pushing ahead with a new commitment to reduce our emissions in line with climate science. The goal? Cut our emissions 55% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.” (And naturally their pledge includes “Climate positive means to… advocate for broader systemic change.” Possibly including abolishing the capitalist system within which they operate; see “breaking eggs” above.) And Bell Canada declares itself “Committed to carbon neutral operations by 2025” illustrated by guy who could easily be an MEC customer gazing rapturously at a large tree. But not all marketing is strictly accurate; as the late John M. Robson used to say, they’re happy to declare it new and improved this year but never mentioned that it needed improving last year. Even in a hippy-ethos outdoor store that relies on “channeling additional climate finance towards mitigation activities outside of their value chains” to fudge the numbers because you just can’t operate, including making and selling plastic kayaks, without carbon emissions.

There’s the big problem. As we’ve said before, it was all fun and games 20 years ago when you could promise just anything and say yeah, yeah, we’ll figure it out. But now 2030 is close and 2025 alarmingly so. And even growing political enthusiasm for carbon capture is a sometimes tacit admission that ceasing to give off the stuff is just not on, for reasons ranging from geopolitics to economics to physics.

Academics may beg to differ, like those at Oxford who said “Decarbonising the energy system by 2050 could save trillions… New study shows a fast transition to clean energy is cheaper than slow or no transition/ Idea that going green will be expensive is ‘just wrong’”. But we say fine, start a company, get rich and laugh at us all the way to the bank. Until which time, pray hold thy quill.

Zeke Hausfather and other academics brush aside practical problems, writing in Joule that:

“Our estimates of future power sector generation material requirements across a wide range of climate-energy scenarios highlight the need for greatly expanded production of certain commodities. However, we find that geological reserves should suffice to meet anticipated needs, and we also project climate impacts associated with the extraction and processing of these commodities to be marginal.”

We brush them off until they take advantage of this glittering opportunity or at least explain (h/t Willis Eschenbach) what “geological reserves” even are.

Naturally there are those, like the New York Times “Climate Forward”, who are fighting a rearguard action, claiming that it is climate change rather than climate change policies that are running into an economic brick wall. Back in March it insisted that:

“This week, a high-profile World Bank report warned that the global economy is expected to slow to a pace we haven’t seen in 30 years. The reasons are varied, as my colleague Alan Rappeport reported. The pandemic, the war in Ukraine and longer-term issues like weaker cross-border trade. But economists are worried that one factor slowing things down, now relatively small, may weigh more heavily in the future. You guessed it: climate change. Today I want to talk about how global warming is expected to affect economic growth, and how a slump could hinder efforts to fight warming. It’s a kind of vicious circle.”

Except for the bit where warmer weather isn’t bad, whereas expensive or unavailable energy is a disaster, we reply. And it’s not just us.

It’s starting to dawn on more and politicians from the municipal level up, often under urgent pressure from worried constituents, that pipe dreams are just dreams even if the stuff in the pipe is green. (The Bank of England told Britons they were poorer and to get used to it, an intervention commentators suggested was not helpful. But the Green New Deal or whatever you call it does mean giving up amenities like cheap flights, and even essentials like home heating, and getting nothing in return.) In Australia there is growing concern about blackouts, unhappy trade partners and rising costs, with in-your-face headlines like “Soaring cost of power bills a shocker for small business” even if mainstream politicians and even energy executives are still too timid to challenge the goals of or supposed science behind this economic suicide.

Yes, we said blackouts. In an advanced 21st-century economy run by advanced 21st-century zealots. Here in Ottawa, a correspondent notes, “I have never before seen such attention paid to power outages” in communications from the power company, and asks:

“Is there **any** consideration for people on medical devices, such as home dialysis or CPAP machines or even, with more work being done from home, business computers? Also, rather than just giving us coping mechanisms, why not try increasing generating ability?”

Well, they did try, and what you see is the result of their failure.

3 comments on “On a cold winter night, on a transition bound for nowhere”

  1. To reach a carbon-free energy sector by 2035, we not only have to increase solar and wind generation by 20-fold, we also have to replace all of the wind and solar installations that were built prior to 2016, since the average life expectancy of this "free" energy is 20 years. And then by 2055, we will not only have to add capacity to accommodate growth between 2035 and 2055; we will also have to replace 100% of the wind and solar generation built before 2035. It's a Sisyphean task.

  2. As they load up the grid with unreliable grid parasites in place of reliable baseload, following the lead of our enlightened European friends, it may come to light to our ruling Jacobins that 10% of grid production is currently used to feed the internet and everything online. Rather than, or in addition to freezing or starving as the usual consequence of energy poverty, can we expect rationing of online activities such as, say, "limiting access" to sites known for "disinformation". I wonder if CBDCs will get priority use.

  3. Thylacine you are so right. And when we are replacing these things we will use explosives to drop the turbines into the sea. Recycling them will cost as much as building one.
    We never can recycle all the car batteries if the world EV fleet reaches 40%
    Solar panels are already a problem in Australia.
    Lets not forget that we can't recycle plastic (only 20%) despite it is easy to do. Wind, lithium ion, solar are 100 times harder.

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